Kairouan, historic city of Islam

Friday 03/07/2015
Uqba ibn Nafi mosque in Kairouan.

Kairouan, Tunisia - At the dawn of the 20th century, Swiss-German painter Paul Klee stood at the gates of Kairouan contemplating the scen­ery. Enamoured by the colours and charm of the town, Klee uttered: “Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will always possess me, I know it. That is the mean­ing of this happy moment: Colour and I are one. I am a painter.” The light and colours that the town of­fered sparked Klee’s artistic break­through.

Kairouan fascinated visitors with its rich civilisation and scenery for centuries as it became the cradle for civilisations ranging from the Umayyad to the Aghlabid rules. Lo­cated at the centre of Tunisia, the town lies peacefully between sea and mountain.

Kairouan is considered one of the holiest towns in Islam and was the first Islamic capital in the Maghreb. The Arab general and leader of Islamic conquests, Uqba ibn Nafi, crossed the deserts begin­ning his first Muslim conquest of the Maghreb region. He ordered the setting of a military camp favour­able for the strategic positioning of the region.

On that site around 670, Uqba ibn Nafi founded the city of Kairouan as he feared that leaving Ifriqiya would endanger Islam in the re­gion. Soon, the military camp set in a region described as deserted became one of the most powerful Islamic settlements.

“The name ‘Kairouan’ was de­rived from a Persian word which means ‘a camp’. This reveals the purpose that Uqba ibn Nafi intend­ed for the town, which was to serve as a fortress and a military camp. It became an important centre for Is­lamic teachings and Quranic learn­ing,” said Loti Aissa, a Tunisian his­torian.

He added: “Kairouan is a part of the collective memory of Tunisians as the city occupies a part of every Tunisian’s history. Its creation was a founding moment in the history of Tunisians.”

During the centuries that fol­lowed, Kairouan became the Islam­ic capital of the region. Governors of the town were directly appointed by the caliphs and exercised their rule of the region from the town.

Kairouan is best known for its strategic position, and it served as the starting point for many Islamic conquests towards Algeria, Moroc­co and Spain. Hence, the city be­came known as one of the most im­portant cities in the Islamic world.

It also became one of the most im­portant cultural centres in the Arab world as it witnessed the flourish­ing of religious sciences and arts. Being the most ancient Islamic base in the Maghreb, it became a place of teaching religion as well as the Ara­bic language.

“The moderate Islam that sprung from the teachings of the schools in Kairouan was the product of the concern of the scholars about the consolidation of both the theory and the practice. Scholars in Kair­ouan advocated an Islam that fo­cused on the application of religion and its teachings on reality and practical problems,” Aissa stated.

“Most of the texts produced by the Islamic scholars of Kairouan were about solving the daily issues through the teachings of Islam. Perhaps one of the most important scholars was Muhammad ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani whose work Al- Risala became one of the most in­fluential texts.”

Kairouan remained the Maghreb’s principal holy city. Today, Kairouan is a UNESCO heritage site.

Protected by walls and gates, the medina of Kairouan has maintained a web of twisting alleys and tradi­tional houses. It contains mosques and shrines that welcome visitors for prayers. Minarets mark the sky­line of the town, emphasising the spiritual dimension of the place. The medina quarter hosts souks that sell the carpets, vases and leather products that the town is famous for. The souks are still hubs for tradesmen and visitors.

One of the most important mon­uments in Kairouan is the Great Mosque of Uqba, which dates to the seventh century.

Considered one of the most im­portant Islamic monuments in the Maghreb, the great mosque is an architectural masterpiece that was founded by Uqba ibn Nafi cover­ing a perimeter of 405 metres. The mosque celebrates Islamic archi­tecture with columns and capitals taken from ruins and containing marble and porphyry along with inscriptions. Not only was the mosque a place for worship, but it was also a centre for education for Islamic and secular sciences.

Kairouan is also known for the Mosque of the Three Gates, which was founded in 866. The mosque stands as a masterpiece of Islamic architecture containing arched doors surmounted by Kufic inscrip­tions as well as floral and geometric decorations.

The holy town is named for the different sacred places it contains. One of the holiest places in Kai­rouan is the Mosque of Barber, or the mausoleum of Sidi Sahab, where the shrine of the compan­ion of the Prophet, Abu Zama al- Belaoui, stands. Tiled in colours, the mosque became a place of ven­eration for Tunisians who seek the blessings of the companion of the Prophet.

Whoever visits Kairouan should not skip the Aghlabid basins. Built during the ninth century, the cis­terns are impressive for their engi­neering sophistication. The Basins of the Aghlabid constitute one of the most beautiful systems con­ceived to transport water.

During Ramadan, Kairouan re­stores its charm as an Islamic capi­tal as it becomes a destination for spirituality seekers with religious chanting circles held throughout the month.

Mosques welcome visitors for prayers. The town’s courtyard be­comes vibrant with life as many attend prayers in the great mosque and then gather in the courtyard to share coffee and Kairouan’s famous sweets, Makroudh.

“The town of Kairouan is similar to an open-air museum for its rich­ness and diversity. Every corner and every place contain a piece of history. The perimeter of the Medi­na is the largest, making it an open museum to visitors with activities of a cultural and economic aspect,” Aissa said.